What Are You Working On?

March 19, 2015

Annette Windhorn has coordinated the OAH Distinguished Lectureship Program since 2001. Prior to joining the OAH staff, she worked as a marketing person for Duke University Press, the University of Nebraska Press, and the Smithsonian Institution Press.

Before coming to the OAH, I spent a number of years working for university presses, including pulling exhibit duty at a variety of conferences. One of my favorite questions to ask booth visitors was “What are you working on?” A fascinating, even passionate answer would often follow, complete with a noticeable gleam in the author’s eyes. That spark, that creativity, that engagement, no matter what the field, inspired me as a reader and as a book marketer.

As I work with OAH Distinguished Lecturers, I’ve continued to enjoy hearing about the latest discoveries in the field of American history. The majority of our 400+ volunteer speakers are active and award-winning authors, and I suspect that many lecture invitations have been inspired by their published works.

Most lecturer profile pages on our site also mention what the speakers are currently researching. For example:

Leslie Harris of Emory University is working on a family history of New Orleans between Hurricanes Betsy and Katrina. “As a native of New Orleans, with family in the city at the time of Hurricane Katrina,” she explains, “I wanted to contribute to the debates around the meaning of the city. In the news coverage during and after the storm, I began to have the odd sensation of seeing New Orleans through the eyes of others—as incredibly poor, as run down, as a failed city. And although I knew that was all true, I felt that we weren’t completely dealing with why that was true. I quickly realized that I could use my skills as an historian to tell a story that was both personal and broadly historical. One of my central questions is what does it mean to be an upwardly mobile black family in a downwardly mobile city? I also want to understand how and why cities fail, and to address some of the harder, perhaps meaner questions that I heard soon after the storm like, ‘Why would anyone ever live there?’ or ‘Should the city be saved?’”

Alexis McCrossen of Southern Methodist University is examining New Year’s observances in the United States. She writes, “Perhaps my youthful New Years in far-flung places like Tonga, Cairo, and New York City as well as at home in Albuquerque, watching Dick Clark’s ‘New Year’s Rockin’ Eve,’ sensitized me to the charged nature of New Year’s observances. So, when I encountered tantalizing accounts of these observances while researching the history of Sunday and then of timekeeping in the United States, I was attuned to their potential to uncover important elements of temporal rhythms, ruptures, and rituals. As I looked more closely, I realized how tightly New Year’s observances were intertwined with social and political rituals associated with democracy, which has added a new and important element to my overall project of understanding the multi-faceted history of temporal reckoning and meaning.”

Maria Montoya of New York University is studying company towns out West and the origins of health insurance. “I am interested in the relationship between corporations and the home and work lives of their employees, both in terms of gender and labor,” she explains. “Thinking about how and why industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller, Josephine Roche, and Henry Kaiser provided health care and housing for their workers has helped me to think about the origins of universal health care and its relationship to business history.”

Bryant Simon’s current project starts with one of the worst industrial accidents in the recent American past. “In 1991,” the Temple University professor writes, “a factory in Hamlet, North Carolina, blew up, killing twenty-five people who were trapped behind locked doors. Prior to the blast, the workers at the plant, which had never been inspected, made chicken tenders that sold in restaurants across the South for $1.99, fries and a drink included. My book will tell this tragic story, but even more, the troubling story of the high and often deliberately hidden costs of cheap government, cheap food, and cheap labor in United States and around the rest of the world over the last forty years.”

So, I invite you to see “what’s next” in the field of U.S. history, using the work of the OAH lecturers as a lens. Search for “current project,” “currently,” or “forthcoming,” among other keywords, for insights into the ongoing scholarly production by this outstanding group of American historians.

Maybe you’ll find someone there that you want to invite to speak about his or her latest work.